A HOTEL DESTINATION RESTAURANT IN ASBURY PARK TAKES A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH TO THE MODERN DINING EXPERIENCE
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
When the owners of The St. Laurent entered the initial planning stages for their in house restaurant, they had no shortage of viable options. Any restaurateur would jump at the opportunity to launch at the swanky Asbury Park destination, an historic 19th century landmark reimagined as a chic social club meets hotel concept. But the owners knew they wanted to partner with Heirloom Kitchen, one of the state’s most well-known and celebrated restaurants. Now, as The St. Laurent celebrates its second year on the Shore’s social scene, Heirloom has been integral to its success.
The greatest ideas often emerge under pressure. Such was the case when lauded chefs David Viana and Neilly Robinson got together years ago to launch what would become the Heirloom family of restaurants. Robinson had been running a cooking school with a retail component while Viana, a seasoned cuisiner and 2018 Top Chef alum, was beginning to feel the pangs of the status quo. Together they came up with a fresh idea for a hybrid space: one part restaurant, one part cooking school. It was unconventional, but that’s what excited them.
“We were two like-minded people at a point in our lives where we had really nothing to lose,” Viana said. “And for the first time in my life, I created a restaurant that had balance. We were open three nights a week as a restaurant, and two days a week we were teaching cooking classes. We just wanted to do it differently.”
The original Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge was an instant success, blending the unpretentious approachfulness of a cooking school with an expansive take on New American cooking, one devoted to local ingredients. Viana had spent enough time in kitchens to know what worked and what didn’t, and he prioritized a healthy, balanced work environment. In an industry full of turnover, Viana and Robinson were able to retain their employees year over year, fostering an environment where everyone could grow together.
The road from the original Heirloom Kitchen still a wildly popular restaurant today to The St. Laurent was, fittingly, an unconventional route as well. Viana and Robinson had launched a space in Philadelphia with the intent to expand to a second location, but the project fizzled out after their landlord suddenly spiked their rent. But, fortuitously, one of their customers in Philadelphia and Old Bridge was designer and builder Jamie Brust. She and her partner, Brigit Brust, both owners of Space & Company, a prominent local real estate firm, brought their family and partners to the Philly location to have the Heirloom experience. When the team opened The St. Laurent, they remembered their experience at the restaurant.
“They came into our pop up three times and got to know us,” Viana said. “When they were opening up in Asbury Park, they thought of us because of their experience in Philly. It was all because of this pop up that, at one point, I thought was a huge waste of time and energy. But it created this gem of an opportunity.”
Today, Viana and Robinson run three restaurants: Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, Lita (a modern Iberian concept in Aberdeen), and Heirloom at The St. Laurent. Running a restaurant in a hotel/social club brings its fair share of challenges, noted Viana. While Heirloom Kitchen launched with a small staff of five chefs, the team at The St. Laurent reaches upwards of 50. There is a cocktail lounge, a pool, and two activations a day lunch and dinner six days a week. How has Viana managed the transition to his largest project yet? The key, he said, is finding the right people. “Everything is about who you surround yourself with,” said the chef. “After that it’s nurturing and taking care of your staff and creating a culture and an environment where they can flourish. If you take care of your staff, they’ll exceed your expectations when it comes to taking care of your guests. We’re in the business of taking care of people, and we start with ourselves.”
While the opening menu at The St. Laurent was entirely Viana’s brainchild, part of his radical approach to running a restaurant is empowering his chefs to make their mark on the menu. In the past, Viana had worked under rigid chefs who insisted on unchanging menus, an intractability that eventually led to burnout and, frankly, boring, rote food. As such, the menu at The St. Laurent is constantly evolving. There are hallmark carryovers from the original Heirloom Kitchen, sure, (a duck dish of some kind has remained a menu stalwart since the early days) but the twin priorities of seasonal cooking and novel recipe development means there are always new dishes for guests to try. “Our chef de cuisine, Greg Giebler, has a pork belly dish with fermented watermelon molasses made from scratch and fresh watermelon,” said Viana. “It’s a really craveable crispy pork belly tossed in this homemade fermented watermelon molasses. It’s the end of summer, we have all this watermelon, and we’re trying to find a way to make this watermelon last in its peak throughout the rest of the fall. It’s a beautiful interpretation of summer in a shore town. It captures everything Heirloom stands for, which is fun, creative unique takes on things you already recognize.”
When the team opened The St. Laurent, they aimed to deliver first class hospitality in a classic, refined space. In Heirloom, they’ve found the perfect partners for that mission. Menus may change over time, but at every stage of Viana and Robinson’s journey, a 360 degree appreciation of their guests and staff remains consistent.
“The real job of a chef is to nurture through food,” Viana said. “We try to get better at it every day.”
Heirloom at The St. Laurent
408 7th Avenue, Asbury Park
732.795.2582 / thestlaurent.com